Advanced Techniques: Continuous Discovery
Lessons from 6Y+ of practice
If there’s a single technique I could recommend to supercharge your impact as a PM, it’s continuous discovery.
What makes continuous discovery so magical?
It emphasizes the importance of continuously talking to as customers as a product trio (and talking to them well)
It helps product trios “rise to the occasion” of how modern product teams are run: based on outcomes, not outputs
It gives you a scaffolding to understand how to visualize the results of your customer conversations
Building On a Legend
Teresa Torres does a wonderful job in her book Continues Discovery Habits breaking down the practice. I’ve kept it on my desk for the past few years and implemented the habits in my daily practice.
The wisdom is seeping out of every page. So why do we need a post on it?
In today’s post, I’m going to break down my own style of implementing Teresa’s work, and how I have worked to systematize some of her concepts in a way that’s different from what she teaches.
Over 6,000 words, we’ll cover:
Part 1: Why You Need Continuous Discovery
What actually is it?
Real-world success stories
Part 2: The 3 Key Pillars of Continuous Discovery
Regular, good customer interviews
Rapidly testing assumptions
Part 3: 10 Advanced Techniques for Continuous Discovery
OST → OKPS trees
Automate your Recruiting
Real-Time Discovery Databases
Voice of Customer (VoC) Program
Gamified Customer Feedback Loops
Integrating Delivery Research Methods
Competitive Landscape Mapping (CLM)
Contextual Inquiry-Driven Development
Holistic Stakeholder Alignment Meetings
Handling Objections from your Teams & Leaders
Part 1: Why You Need Continuous Discovery
1.1 What actually is it?
Discovery vs Delivery
To understand Continuous Discovery, we need to understand discovery - and what it means in contrast to delivery:
Discovery is about understanding what you should build.
Delivery is about actually building.
Back in the days of un-empowered PMs, PMs spent all their time on delivery. Executives would come down from Idea Mountain and hand teams what they should build (although they would often blame the team when those things didn’t have the intended impact).
So just prioritizing discovery at all was a big step forward for PMs. For some of you reading this now (through no fault of your own), it still could be.
Continuous Discovery is the process about not jumping from discovery to delivery in a one-track fashion, where you focus all your energies on discovery during planning, and then focus all your energies on delivery outside of that:
Instead, you constantly spend portion of your time on discovery. I recommend something like 25%/75% depending on whether you are in planning or not.
What does it mean to do discovery while you’re also doing delivery in practice?
You don’t have as clear an idea of what you’re going to build at planning: Rising to the occasion of OKRs and Empowered (Marty Cagan) PMs, discovery is about having some uncertainty about exactly what you’re going to build, and discovering some of it as you get to the work of designing it.
You are constantly talking to customers to shape your solutions: As you refine the idea and design, you put it to the test with user interviews. You don’t just assume the exec got it right when they told you, you shape it as a result of user feedback.
Continuous Discovery Habits
Where Continuous Discovery is the practice of always doing discovery, Continuous Discovery Habits are the practices you take on in order to do that Continuous Discovery.
Some of the habits that Teresa recommends include:
Talking to a customer weekly: As Teresa says, “At a minimum, weekly touchpoints with customers by the team building the product where they conduct small research activities in pursuit of a desired outcome.”
Mapping out opportunities and solutions in Opportunity-Solution Trees: The idea is to visualize what to interview about. As Teresa says, “OSTs help build and maintain a shared understanding across your trio.”
Testing assumptions really fast: The idea is to do more assumption tests than A/B tests. As Teresa says, “assumption testing is generally quicker than idea testing.” She recommends 12+ per week 🤯
I’m going to walk through these habits in more detail in section 2, but wanted to preview them here so you can understand their power. I’m also going to share some advanced techniques when it comes to the habits in part 3. So, more to come.
But first, let’s understand the historical perspective and importance of these Continuous Discovery Habits.
1.2 Historical Perspective
The Waterfall Model Dominated
Before the internet, we could afford to do software in a waterfall fashion. Think about a major video game like Nintendo Super Mario Bros. You would release one of these things every few years.
But now, in the age of the internet, competition has multiplied. There is literally no market for you to go after that is totally greenfield. There is going to be competition.
The way to beat this competition is to ship better product - and the way to do that is by shipping more often. You read that right - you need to ship faster to ship better. This has been one of the key insights from the field of developer productivity.
This has totally broken the waterfall model. Now, modern product teams are moving at lightning pace. The companies where executives sit at a quarterly offsite and determine all the initiatives are getting out-innovated by small teams that use AI and move fast.
Outcomes Have Become King
As a result, even the largest companies like Google and Meta have moved away from a shift in focus from outcomes to outputs. It’s a great change.
But PMs have been left in the wilderness in this change. Teams are now asked to understand what to build, instead of just how to build it. This higher degree of autonomy hasn’t come with loads of instruction.
In fact, the vast majority of product leaders are clueless as to how to help their teams. Because, they haven’t operated in this environment themselves.
That’s where Continuous Discovery Habits comes in. If you’re a PM or product leader who wants to help your teams achieve these outcomes, consistently talking to customers, mapping OSTs, and rapidly testing assumptions are great tactical next steps to get there.
1.3 Real-World Success Stories
Implementing Continuous Discovery Habits has basically become my playbook for PM since I first watched Teresa’s talk at Productized 6 years ago. I’ve used it to help:
Increased Fortnite D30 Retention 10%+: We used matchmaking & social to solve real user problems like unbalanced matches and increase new user D30 retention. We were iterating on small multipliers daily by talking to our users. We didn’t quite hit Teresa and Marty’s direction of 12/week, but 5x was great for learning nonetheless.
Grew Affirm App MAU ~3.5x: By regularly solving user problems our high-confidence bets. The infrastructure at the company didn’t support frequent production tests, so we instead relied of user assumption tests in interviews that we understood from OKPS trees.
I wouldn’t have had the ability to make any of these changes without Continuous Discovery Habits - and my advanced spins on them.
And you better bet I’m using them at Apollo.io as well. Thanks to our wonderful research, sales & customer support teams, I talk to customers every single day.
I’m really excited to share all these advanced spins today.
Part 2: The Three Key Pillars of Continuous Discovery Habits
But before we go advanced - let’s refresh our understanding of the basics. In this section, we’ll go the layer deeper on what I consider the 3 most important pillars of Continuous Discovery Habits.
Pillar One - Regular, good customer interviews
Plenty of people do customer interviews, but few of them do good one’s.
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